AS Austria takes over the European Union chair for the next six months, get ready for even more signs of European pride and prejudice.

Europe’s leaders — with a few exceptional exceptions — seem to be in the midst of an extraordinary anti-migrant frenzy as they seek to clamp down on the entry of some of the world’s most hapless people.

Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz is the proud leader of the pack.

The anti-foreign hysteria stands in contrast to the celebration of diversity in European football. Most European football teams competing in the ongoing World Cup are multicultural, multi-coloured and multi-racial.

Many of Europe’s leaders make no secret of their wish to keep the continent white and Christian. But Europe’s most exciting footballers are a fascinating mix of colours, religions and ethnicities.

Many come from deprived immigrant communities. Many are Muslim. Others are black or of Arab descent. National football managers like Spain’s Roberto Martinez who coaches the Belgian Red Devils are hired on the basis of their competence, not their nationality.

EU leaders, on the other hand, are on an anti-Muslim roll. “The main task of the new government will be to preserve Hungary’s security and Christian culture,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in May this year after winning the vote to form a new government.

Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, who is now Italy’s interior minister has warned that Islam is “incompatible” with Italian values, a theme repeated by his German counterpart, Horst Seehofer who believes “Islam does not belong” in Germany.

Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz sees his country joining Germany and Italy in an “axis of the willing against immigration”. His “Vissegrad 4” allies from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland are also engaged in an embarrassing game of “guess who can be tougher on immigration”.

Kurz is certainly young — but with his focus on hate rather than hope, he is by no means a progressive, liberal millennial. The 31-year-old Austrian leader has embraced the far-right Freedom Party as a coalition partner and — along with others like him around the continent — is helping to make Europe racist and xenophobic again.

Disturbing signs

It’s a sorry and unedifying spectacle for a continent where millions of Jews, Roma and homosexuals were sent to their death only 70 years ago.

Disturbingly, after decisions taken at a recent EU summit and in subsequent agreements reached within the German coalition, the EU is preparing to set up so-called “processing centres” for Middle Eastern and African refugees fleeing war and deprivation.

It’s not clear just where these “centres” will be established or whether the United Nations will really be involved in making sure they don’t turn — as many fear — into detention camps.

But it’s here that authorities will try and distinguish between “real” refugees that the EU cannot turn away because of international obligations and the much-despised (but also much-needed) economic migrants who must be kept out at all cost.

Not everyone is pandering to the populists, however. Spain’s new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his Portuguese counterpart Antonio Costa as well as French President Emmanuel Macron — on a good day — are trying to stop the tide of hate.

Spain recently took in the Aquarius rescue ship carrying refugees which had been refused safe entry by Italy’s Salvini who accuses non-governmental rescue organisations of encouraging refugees to try and brave the perilous Mediterranean sea to reach Europe.

Portugal’s Costa says, “We need more immigration and we won’t tolerate any xenophobic rhetoric.” And although German Chancellor Angela Merkel, accused by many of having triggered the refugee problem by opening her country’s doors to Syrian refugees in 2015, has been forced to forge a political compromise with her anti-refugee coalition partner, she has refused to apologise for her initial compassionate reflex.

And so it goes. Fear of the populists is making most of Europe’s mainstream conservative parties adopt the rhetoric and policies of the far right. Odd arguments abound. Donald Tusk, the EU Council president, recently insisted that criticism of his “tough proposals” on immigration were misplaced since they were meant to stop even tougher policies from the “really tough guys”. Whatever.

The truth is simpler. Like US President Donald Trump, Europe’s populists have discovered that being tough on foreigners and especially anti-Islamic rants, are great vote winners. And in Europe there’s always another election around the corner.

Still, the number of refugees coming to Europe has gone down. And for all their swagger, Europe’s populists overall have so far only succeeded in securing 15 per cent of the overall vote.

But populists, or illiberals as they prefer to be called, are in power in several Central and Eastern European states, prompting Hungary’s Orban to envision setting up an alliance of “illiberal democracies”.

In countries such as Austria and Italy, meanwhile, the far right is part of coalition governments.

With elections to the European Parliament set to be held in May next year, the battle for the hearts and minds of Europeans is getting fiercer.

The challenge for Europe’s liberal democrats is to convince more Europeans to come out and vote — and to ensure that Europe’s celebration of diversity and is not just limited to football.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2018